DUBAI (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al Assad said in a rare interview broadcast on Thursday that his government had a duty to “annihilate terrorists” to protect its people and ruled out any solution to the crisis imposed from outside the country.
His one-hour interview coincided with a sharp escalation of violence inside Syria and a flurry of diplomatic activity ahead of a planned meeting in Geneva that will try to end the bloodshed.
Diplomats said the talks - involving U.N. Security Council members and key regional countries - would focus on a proposed transition plan to pave the way for a unity government.
“The responsibility of the Syrian government is to protect all of our residents. You have a responsibility to annihilate terrorists in any corner of the country,” Assad told Iranian state television.
“When you eliminate a terrorist, it’s possible that you are saving the lives of tens, hundreds, or even thousands,” he said, referring to last month’s massacre in the village of Houla in which more than 100 people, including women and children, were killed.
Battling to crush a 16-month uprising against his rule, the 46-year-old Alawite leader demanded international observers speak out more about the “terrorist operations” they witnessed.
He also firmly rejected any solution imposed from outside the country, emphasizing his own commitment to reform instead.
“We will not accept any non-Syrian, non-national model, whether it comes from big countries or friendly countries. No one knows how to solve Syria’s problems as well as we do,” he said.
“We are moving forward with political reforms. But for terrorists and the governments that support them, reforms have no meaning.”
Assad accused Syria’s foes of trying to interfere in his country’s internal affairs with U.N. resolutions and by bringing about the failure of Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
But he said he did not believe the crisis would result in military action in Syria.
What happened in Libya was “not a solution to be copied because it took Libya from one situation into a much worse one. We all now see how the Libyan people are paying the price,” he said.
He had harsh words too for Syria’s neighbor Turkey, relations with which have worsened following the shooting down of one of its military planes by Syrian forces last Friday.
“The policies of the Turkish officials lead to the killing and bloodshed of the Syrian people,” said Assad.
While the United States and its allies have called for Assad to step aside to help bring an end to the bloodshed, allies Iran and Russia have continued to support the Syrian leader and criticized what they say is foreign interference in the country.
In recent years, Iran’s Shi‘ite theocracy has allied itself more closely with Syria’s nationalist secular government to widen its opposition to Israel and to act as a counterweight against Sunni powers in the region such as Saudi Arabia.
Western diplomats say Tehran has boosted its support for Assad in recent months, supplying training, weapons and communications expertise to assist his forces fight rebel groups.
However, Assad was scornful on Thursday of reports that Iranian forces and fighters from Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah resistance movement had been helping direct Syrian army operations.
“This is a joke that we hear many times in order to show that a rift has been created within the army and that therefore there is not an army,” he said.
Thanking Iran for being such a loyal friend, he said Damascus would repay such loyalty. He said: “We are on the same front and the name of this front is being independent and making national decisions.”
Iran has voiced its support for the Annan peace plan and has offered to participate in crisis talks, but Western diplomats say its motives are purely to safeguard its own interests.
Reporting by Marcus George, Yeganeh Torbati and Zahra Hosseinian; Editing by Michael Roddy and Andrew Osborn